The UN, NATO and the United States are
cooperating to shut down Islamic terrorism in Afghanistan by taking away a
major source of income; profits from the heroin trade. It's all a matter of
upsetting the processing of the annual production of 10,000 tons of opium
(worth about $45 a pound) to 1,300 tons of heroin (worth about $1,600 a pound).
This requires 2,600 tons of acetic anhydride, an industrial chemical. This is a
clear liquid that is flammable and poisonous if you inhale it. The key to
crippling the Taliban money machine is intercepting the chemical needed to
convert opium into heroin.
There is no legal use for acetic
anhydride inside Afghanistan. With bribes and transportation costs, the drug
gangs pay about $2,000 per ton to get it to Pakistan. Then it has to be
smuggled into Afghanistan, by truck. There are a limited number of roads, with
the border manned by guards who are accustomed to being bribed. There are
several other chemicals needed to refine the opium (to morphine, then to
heroin), but acetic anhydride is the hardest to get, and the one needed in the
largest quantities. Smaller quantities of hydrochloric acid are also needed,
but this is a more common industrial chemical. Pakistan drove the heroin trade
out in the 1990s, in part, by interfering with the supply of acetic anhydride.
While there was a market for opium, it was mainly local, and the large amount
of opium available drove the price down. The real money was in heroin, where
smaller, more valuable amounts, were easier to move out of the country to more
lucrative markets in the Persian Gulf, Europe and North America.
Now, consider how heroin fits into the
worldwide drug market. The most widely used drug is actually marijuana (and
it's refined version, hashish). There are about 170 million users of these
products worldwide. Many live in rural areas where marijuana grows wild and
legal restrictions are not energetically enforced. But in many urban areas,
marijuana is a major source of income for gangsters, and some terrorist groups.
Not as profitable as cocaine and heroin, and harder to smuggle (because of the
bulk), but it is still a major threat because it has such a large market.
More debilitating drugs like heroin and
cocaine are more expensive, more potent and have less than 20 percent of the
market of marijuana and hashish. Cocaine and heroin are more likely to disable
users, including much higher risk of accidental death. The 30 million cocaine
or heroin users (about 60 percent of them prefer the less debilitating cocaine)
are actually dwarfed by the slightly larger number of addicts for synthetic
drugs (everything from methamphetamine to Ecstasy and especially prescription
drugs). But cocaine and heroin come from farm crops (coca for cocaine, poppies
for heroin) that are very profitable for poor farmers in places like the South
American highlands (coca) or Central Asia (Afghanistan at the moment). In both
these places, the illegal crops account for the majority of the supply for that
illegal drug on the planet. In the case of cocaine, the drug is largely
produced by gangsters, with some help from political outlaws (mostly leftist
groups). There is some terrorism, but it is all local.
The big danger is the heroin trade,
where Islamic terrorists have partnered with tribe based drug gangs to produce
most of the world's heroin. This is nothing new. For decades after World War
II, most of the heroin came from the
remote Burma (now Myanmar)-China border area. But both of those nations
eventually cracked down on that business, and it moved to Pakistan for a while,
but was forced, by a violent government reaction, across the border into
Afghanistan. In both earlier cases, controlling the supply of acetic anhydride
played a major role in crushing the heroin trade.
The Afghan government is reluctant to
shut down the heroin trade, partly because many senior government officials are
being bribed, and partly because it would cause more tribal warfare (most of
the tribes oppose the heroin trade, and only a few of the Pushtun tribes in the
south control most of the heroin production). Moreover, there is the likelihood
that the poppy growing and heroin production would just move to another Central
Asian nation. The Islamic terrorists would follow. So the problem really is to
crush, or otherwise neutralize, the Taliban, al Qaeda and other Islamic
radicals who are sustaining their violence via drug profits.
It is interesting that the two major
illegal drugs are both produced in small regions, areas that are dominated by
outlaw armies and a general absence of law and order. Illegal empires for
illegal drugs, and it's been that way for quite a while. In Afghanistan, NATO
and U.S. commanders have finally convinced their governments to go after the
money; the heroin trade.
That means manufacturers and
distributors of acetic anhydride will soon come under scrutiny, and pressure to
control the supply of the chemical entering Afghanistan. The chemical enters
Afghanistan from all neighboring countries, except Iran (which has a small army
of troops on the border trying to keep out the opium and heroin that supplies
several million local addicts.) The acetic anhydride is often bought in Europe
or Russia, labeled as some other product, and sent on its way to Pakistan or
one of the Central Asian neighbors of Afghanistan, where bribes or threats are
used to get it into southern Afghanistan, where the processing labs are. This
smuggling network is already under scrutiny, and soon it will be under major
attack. And for the third time in the last few decades, the bulk of the heroin
trade will be forced to find another home.